In the movie Ratatouille, critic Anton Ego, reacting to “overheated puffery” says he craves “some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective.” Perspective is often missing in new technology trends, which leads many to miss what is important, mistake fads for fundamentals, and confuse frauds with the real thing.
During the first great Internet boom in the late 1990s, most of the financial press and other sectors of the economy mocked the “dot.com” frivolity, replete with vapid business models, lavish spending, and nosebleed valuations. At the end of March 2000, when the NASDAQ plummeted, the Schadenfreude was gleeful and self-righteous. A lot of so-called investors deservedly lost a lot of money, but so did a lot of good investors who were bystanders to the great crash. When my New York City cab driver in late 1999 was explaining to me his foolproof strategy of trading Internet stocks, I should have known the end was near.
Of course, many business models of that era lacked any semblance of fundamentals. Too many companies spent themselves into the ground with no capacity to generate enterprise value. The inexperienced armies of newly self-proclaimed venture investors fueled a gross lack of discipline and made employing best practices challenging, as fundamentals were often not rewarded. Good VCs often were crowded from good deals because of valuation inflation.
Yet, in that era, four of today’s five most valuable companies — Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet/Google — were either formed or transformed (the other in the top five being Saudi Aramco). Today these four are US$7.1 trillion of market capitalization. For comparison, the GDP of the entire country of Japan is US$4.97 trillion.
While the media, financial analysts, and other sectors saw an undifferentiated mass of scams, silliness, excess, and stupidity just waiting for its comeuppance, real companies were being built that would transform the world. The reason the dot.com era generated so much irrational exuberance is precisely because people knew it would transform the economy. Only a few understood how, or which companies would enable the future.
These same cycles have been repeated with all great new buzzworthy trends, whether social networking, cleantech, or fintech. In each case, lots of unsophisticated money flowed in and when the smoke cleared only a few were left standing to define the future. This phenomenon is not new. It is worth looking at the list of the hundreds of defunct U.S. automobile manufacturers from the first half of the 20th Century. Hundreds played. Few survived.
I see today a similar phenomenon with crypto and blockchain. The press, again with relish, covers the industry as shady and full of frauds and scams. Of course, some of that is true. Some coins were literally created as jokes. Many companies have blatantly engaged in illegal securities offerings. Lots of tokens are fundamentally flawed on security and energy usage. And money is flowing in from investors who could not explain a blockchain, must less discern which platforms create real value and which do not.
So, amid every new cycle of hype, inflation, and the burning to the ground of the industry, how do you recognize the phoenixes that will rise from the ashes? The best investors do it, while the amateurs are just the greater fools in the remaining de facto Ponzi schemes.
Train yourself to ask what attributes are necessary for the new technology to capture a large share of the market — the real market, the one with hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions of dollars, of opportunity. Which companies are creating sustainable platforms with defensible barriers to entry, which ones are innovating in a way that resonates with the relevant customers, which ones will survive contact with regulators and governments, and which ones can generate outsized return from their investments?
Going back to today’s hot new thing, cryptocurrencies, if you believe that blockchain-based platforms will power future decentralized financial systems, support issuance of digital currencies by monetary authorities, power smart contracts and trading systems, and be the preferred system for global transactions of multinationals, governments, and financial institutions (and you should believe that), what would a company or token/platform need to look like to win? It would need to be regulatory compliant, safe, secure, energy efficient, and programmable with an easy-to-use language.
Close your eyes, imagine the future where a few companies capture the trillions of dollars. What does that world look like? Now open them and see which companies are building for that future and which are raising hundreds of millions of dollars on hype.
The future is not so hard to see. You just have to imagine the future backwards with perspective. Without it, you will never see that the rat can really cook.